Battling against a bad boss

Dec 05 2006 by Brian Amble Print This Article

We've all heard of - or experienced – the foibles, tantrums or bullying behaviour of a bad boss. But just how big a problem are bad bosses, and what are their effects on employee health and job performance?

Wayne Hochwarter, a Florida State University professor, and two of his doctoral students have conducted a study to shine some light on the effects of bad bosses and to see just how much damage they can do.

"They say that employees don't leave their job or company, they leave their boss. We wanted to see if this is, in fact, true," said Professor Hochwarter.

Hochwarter's team surveyed more than 700 people who work in a variety of jobs about the way they are treated by their supervisors or managers.

The results make for depressing – but not exactly surprising – reading, with nearly a third (31 per cent) of respondents reporting that that their supervisor had given them the silent treatment" in the past year and almost four out of 10 (37 per cent) saying that their supervisor failed to give credit when due.

A similar proportion (39 per cent) said that their supervisor failed to keep promises and more than a quarter (27 per cent) noted that their supervisor made negative comments about them to other employees or managers.

Supervisors who invaded their privacy were a problem for 24 per cent of those questioned, while 23 per cent said that their supervisor blamed others to cover up mistakes or to minimise embarrassment.

But as a raft of separate research has suggested, those who break promises, take credit for the work of others and blame everyone else when things go wrong can sometimes be more than just bad managers.

Canadian Professor Robert Hare published findings in 2004 suggesting that sub-criminal psychopaths tend to show up more in management ranks than elsewhere, while Australian psychotherapist, Glyn Brokensha, believes that around one in 10 managers exhibit such behaviour.

Meanwhile, a survey of visitors to the wonderfully-named in 2005 found that almost half of U.S. workers wanted to fire their boss and a third thought their boss should get assessed by a psychologist.

As the Florida researchers found, organisations that ignore the problems caused by poor managers are risking a raft of other problems.

Employees stuck in an abusive relationship with their boss experience more exhaustion, job tension, nervousness, depressed moods and mistrust, while they are less likely to take on additional tasks, such as working longer or on weekends, and are generally less satisfied with their jobs.

What's more, Hochwarter's team found that employees are more likely to leave a company because they are unhappy with their boss than they are if they are unhappy with their pay.

So what can employees do to minimise the harm caused by an abusive supervisor?

"The first is to stay visible at work," Hochwarter said. "It is common for the employee to blame himself or herself for the abuse, causing embarrassment. Hiding can be detrimental to your career, especially when it keeps others in the company from noticing your talent and contributions. In most cases, others know who the bullies are at work — they likely have a history of mistreating others."

He also recommended keeping an optimistic outlook.

"It is important to stay positive, even when you get irritated or discouraged, because few subordinate-supervisor relationships last forever," he said. "You want the next boss to know what you can do for the company."

Finally, he said, "No abuse should be taken lightly, especially in situations where it becomes a criminal act (for example, physical violence, harassment or discrimination). The employee needs to know where help can be found, whether it is internal (i.e., the company's grievance committee) or external (i.e., formal representation or emergency services)."